Heather Morehouse had wanted to be a nurse ever since her childhood in small town in Oregon, and she got her wish. Her first job was in Portland, Oregon, but it wasn't long before she accepted an assignment in the labor and delivery ward at a small hospital near where she grew up. She couldn't stop thinking, though, about the email she'd received from an old friend about Mercy Ships, an organization that sends fully equipped and staffed medical ships to ports in developing nations.
Heather looked up Mercy Ships online. "Almost instantly I felt a tug," she writes in her story for the May 2017 issue of Guideposts. "Resources? Many sick children in Africa have next to none... Every ounce of my skills and compassion would be needed there. Suddenly I knew where I was meant to be. I signed up for a seven-week commitment in Congo."
Click through to learn more about Heather's experience aboard the Africa Mercy.
The Africa Mercy, serving coastal Africa, is 500 feet long, with eight decks, a crew of 400 volunteers from 40 nations and four wards that provide surgery and treatment for everything from tumors and malformed limbs to burns and eye diseases.
"Inside," Heather writes, "Inside were the familiar hospital sights and smells. Yet everything felt imbued with urgency and purpose. The crew, volunteers from all over the world, welcomed me. They seemed happy and focused. I dropped my bags in the berth I shared with five other women. And I got to work.
Before a Mercy Ships vessel docks, advance teams go to regional hospitals encouraging doctors to send the patients they are unable to treat locally. Word spreads and soon thousands are coming to the ship. Each person is screened on shore and sent aboard if the ship can help.
"I saw so many people board with tumors, bent over by injuries, nearly blind," Heather writes. "After life-saving surgery, they left with new hope. My seven-week posting in Congo flew by, and I volunteered for a longer commitment: 18 months in Tamatave, Madagascar."
Heather was assigned to the maxillofacial ward, where one of her first patients was a young boy with a severe cleft lip, brought by his mother. Heather explained the surgery the child would receive and how he would be cared for afterward.
"The next day, I stood at the boy’s bedside," Heather writes, "and watched as his mother gazed down at him after his surgery. 'Faly be,' she murmured quietly. 'Faly, faly, faly.' I’m so happy, happy, happy."
Heather soon came to realize that, for every happy ending, there were just as many unhappy ones. When she and her colleagues would sometimes leave the ship to go to the beach, they were struck by the poverty she witnessed: people living in tents, chidren begging for food. And too many of the medical cases that came to Africa Mercy for help presented seemingly unsurmountable challenges.
"Mothers tearful over untreatable children. Wounds that wouldn’t heal. Surgeries that helped but didn’t fix a problem. Why did some people get miracles while others didn’t?" Heather wondered. "Where was God? Sometimes it seemed cruel to help a select few while countless others suffered.
Heather and her fellow nurses sometimes gathered to pray for patients whose treatments weren't going well. One man, William, had a large tumor removed from his jaw, and because the tumor was cancerous, they couldn't proceed with the jaw replacement as planned. William's incision was infected and wouldn't heal and half his jaw was permanently missing.
Heather felt helpless. She wasn't sure she'd effectively communicated to William, even with the assistance of an interpreter, why they'd been forced to stop treatment. After a prayer session one day, she glanced over at William. Despite his health problems, he appeared serene as he gazed intently at his Bible. She was reminded that there are many types of healing other than physical, and that God was watching over William, even in this difficult time.
"I knew God continued to care for William, in ways visible and invisible," Heather writes. "Gradually my sense of hopelessness faded. Even if we aboard the Africa Mercy couldn’t cure everyone, we could show God’s love to people who had felt abandoned and alone. We could be part of a larger healing we might never fully understand.
"Here was William, getting to know his true Healer. Who was I to say the care I had shown him was in vain?"
When Heather returned home from Africa, she felt a renewed purpose about nursing, even in the small-town hospital, a facility that faced far fewer challenges in caring for its patients than did the hospitals in Africa
Heather has signed on with another international organization to serve a few times each year in places devastated by war or disaster. She recently returned from a few weeks in Mosul, Iraq, treating refugees fleeing that country's deadly war zone.
"In a way, it doesn’t matter where I work," wrote Heather. "What matters is that I know why I work. I am called to be a nurse. To heal. Most of all, to be God’s hands and heart wherever he sends me. That’s the most important healing of all."
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